Snow and solar at 1280m – does it really work?

It’s not a question that’s asked very often in Australia, but how effective is a standalone solar system in areas that experience snowfall? We asked Ed and Laurie, off-gridding Americans who live, and grow most of their own veggies, at 1280 metres above sea level.

Ed and Laurie Essex.  Pic supplied.
Ed and Laurie Essex. Pic supplied.

Unfortunately, the OSOTG budget doesn’t quite stretch to visiting Ed and Laurie Essex at their home in Wauconda, a small town located in Eastern Washington State in the US. Which is a shame, because the photos they send us of their off-grid property look amazing, with spectacular views of pine and fir trees in the National Park that surrounds the former gold mining town.
The couple – Ed a retired builder and Laurie a health care professional – have a story similar to many people living off-grid; they wanted to lessen their impact on the environment and felt that modern day work and family pressures often meant using more natural resources than necessary.
Ed & Laurie's View.  Pic supplied.
Ed & Laurie’s View. Pic supplied.

“Simply put, we wanted to live ‘away’ from the masses,” explains Ed. “The best way to do it was to purchase a piece of land that was not serviced in any way; no sewer, water, or power. This way we could virtually guarantee privacy for years to come.”
The couple found that moving from a city condo to their new property 400 kms away was a challenge in itself, however they also had to contend with record rainfalls, significant snowfall, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake and a bush fire, all within their first year. Despite this, Ed says he had confidence in their off-grid solar system.
“We were maybe a little nervous about our energy at first, but not now. We actually set the system up before we finished building the house, so were able to give it a trial run. There’s so much information out there that I was fairly sure we would be just fine. The first thing I did was read the book Solar Power for Dummies!”
Brrrrrrr!  Pic supplied.
Brrrrrrr! Pic supplied.

“Looking back, I had to be pretty confident to spend the money to set it up; $22,000 USD ($29,800 AUD). We received a Federal tax credit of 30%, so it ended up paying $15,400 ($20,800 AUD). This was feasible in our case, because to bring power in would have cost much more than the solar system did.”
“I think having a construction background and sizing the system accurately beforehand contributed to my confidence. We use all the conveniences and appliances that any modern household has, such as a microwave, TV, comptuer, washer and dryer, dishwasher, fridge, freezer and vacuum cleaner. I use a 240V welder as well.”
Ed and Laurie’s system consists of a eight 215 watt solar panels on a fixed, free-standing, north-facing pole located near their house and at a height for easy maintenance. Their Xantrex XW 4024 inverter is 4000 watts and their battery storage 1160 amp hours or 22 kW of storage.
The veggie patch and panels in background. Pic supplied.
The veggie patch and panels in background. Pic supplied.

“We get between 45 and 85 inches of snow each year and there is usually 24 to 30 inches on the ground at any given time. We have a long handle brush we use to get the snow off the panels. You learn very quickly to stand to one side while you’re doing it! If the sun is out, it always melts the snow off the panels, no matter how cold it is.”
“The batteries have about 3 days of power for us. I rarely ever let the batteries go below 80% (state of charge) and I manage my system instead of allowing the inverter to do it because I am more efficient than the computer program as I have more information at my disposal about the weather and upcoming electrical needs than the computer does. For example, I know when I am going to have to pump water, which is very taxing on the system with a 240V deep well pump.”
Clearing the driveway.  Pic supplied.
Clearing the driveway. Pic supplied.

“When the sun shines it produces more power than we need. We have the backup generator for those times when it’s cloudy, which we use about 100 hours each year.”
The couple, who say their family and friends were initially dubious about their decision to go off-grid, say they now can’t imagine any other kind of lifestyle.
“Of course, our system would be more effective if we had more sun. It is the generator and fuel costs that make our system a little more expensive than public power in this area. Unfortunately, we simply don’t get the kind of sun you do in Australia!”
The cold frame veggie patch. Pic supplied.
The cold frame veggie patch. Pic supplied.

“Going off-grid is a very exciting exercise because you get to choose where to draw the line in every category of living – energy, food, water and shelter. We made a lot of choices that were different than the way we had been doing things and it made us feel really good to know we were doing a better job for us, our family, and the environment.”
“And the best part is, we didn’t have to give up anything to do it. We just made better choices. Research works. The technology is there.”

The specs: Ed and Laurie’s off-grid system consists of 8 x 215 watt REC panels on a fixed position steel pole with a Xantrex XW 4024 inverter with an automatic generator start control module and an Apollo T-80 HV charge controller. The battery bank is made up of 12 Solar One 2Volt batteries for a 24 volt system. The backup generator is a 12,000 watt Kohler Residential outdoor unit.

Ed & Laurie blog about their off-grid journey at Off Grid Works.
Emma Sutcliffe is a Melbourne-based journalist and climate activist who is the proud owner of an off-grid property in the small town of Little River. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she gets to meet other people who have installed energy storage in their homes and businesses, a task which makes use of her considerable skills for nattering, drinking tea and admiring people’s decor. She invites you to get in touch if you’d like to share your story.

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